A Mathematician on Mathematics

I want to share with you an article I found on ArXiv written by mathematician Steven Krantz for mathematicians on mathematics in the larger university context. [Paper on ArXiv; or get it here.] It’s a good read for mathematicians, yes. It makes a convincing charge that the isolationist tendency of mathematics (specifically the individuals, the departments, and the profession) can’t remain so. But it’s also a really good read for high school math teachers who want to know what professional mathematicians do, how they think.

Abstract: We consider the question of how mathematicians view themselves and how non-mathematicians view us. What is our role in society? Is it effective? Is it rewarding? How could it be improved? This paper will be part of a forthcoming volume on this circle of questions.

A choice excerpt to get you interested:

When we meet someone at a cocktail party and say, “I am a mathematician,” we expect to be snubbed, or perhaps greeted with a witty rejoinder like, “I was never any good in math.” Or, “I was good at math until we got to that stuff with the letters—like algebra.”

When I meet a brain surgeon I never say, “I was never any good at brain surgery. Those lobotomies always got me down.” When I meet a proctologist, I am never tempted to say, “I was never any good at . . . .” Why do we mathematicians elicit such foolish behavior from people?

Krantz first came on my radar when I was writing a research paper on rhetoric in Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. To this day, I have not forgotten his review of that book: the most vicious piece of academic writing I’ve come across. Ever. Krantz knows how to pack a wallop, with rhetorical aplomb. (Plus, I agree with almost everything Krantz had to say damning Wolfram’s book.)


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